Jewish merchants came to Ełk as early as in the 15th century. There is a record written by the local prosecutor (an administrator from the Teutonic Order) seizing fabrics owned by Jews from Hrodna. In 1451 the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order Ludwig von Erlichshausen issued a letter of safe conduct allowing the Lithuanian Jews names Jaczko and Schanden to trade in Ełk and its surroundings. Similar merchants must have undoubtetdly come through the area frequently.

The first Jewish resident of Ełk was mentioned in 1707, and eight years later a Jewish community was established here. In 1718 Jakub Mejloch came to the town. From 1714, he had leased the "royal tavern" in the neighboring Ostrykół.

The Ełk Diaspora began to grow after the legal regulations regarding Jews were liberalised during the Napoleonic period in the early 19th century. 1837 saw a cementary established, and 3 years later the Jewish community, numbering by then 90 people, already had a synagogue[1.1]. The diaspora's growth was further bolstered by the town's location near the border, as well as by the construction of a railway line, which would later connect Prostki and Königsberg. Because of frequent contacts with Jews from the Prussian side of the border, a committee was formed in Ełk to support impoverished Jews living in Poland and Russia (in German: Comitee zur Unterstützung der nothleidenden Israeliten in Russland und Polen). As regulations regarding Jews were further liberalised, in 1847 a synagogue community was established, and construction on a new synagogue began a year later, to be completed in 1851.

In 1841, Lazar Lipmann Silberman (1819-1882) settled in Ełk, and in 1844 ta merchant named Szmul Lejzer moved here from Suchowola in Podlasie. The aforementioned Silbermann served as the community's rabbi and shochet.

In 1856, Silbermann began to publish in Ełk the world's first weekly magazine printed in Hebrew, "Ha-Magid" ("The Preacher"). This magazine was in print until 1891, and reached both the great cities of the Kingdom of Poland and the Russian Empire (Warsaw, Vilnus, and Saint Petersburg), as well as Germany (among them Wrocław, Gdańsk, and Berlin). In 1858, the magazine acquired a second editor, Dawid Gordon (1826-1886), a teacher from Vilnus who had come to Ełk from Liverpool. He continued to print the magazine after Silbermann's death.

Besides "Ha-Magid", Ełk also had another magazine coming out in Hebrew: "Gan Schannschuim" (an issue on record dates from 01 February 1899).

In 1864, Silbermann set up a publishing house - the Mekize Nirdamim association (meaning "waking the sleepers"), which operated in Ełk until 1885, when it was moved to Berlin. Its purpose was to publish rare Hebrew books and manuscripts.

Before the publishing house was founded, in 1858 Silbermann published a  book in Ełk entitled Kadmut ha-Jehudim, which contained Josephus' work "Contra Apionem" as translated by Samuel Shullam and compiled by Silbermann and Izrasel Böhmer. In 1859, Silbermann printed the work of Solomon ben Yehuda ibn Gabirol entitled Goren Nachon.

The Jewish community kept growing until the beginning of the 20th century. It numbered 90 people in 1845, 285 in 1871, 367 in 1905, 150 in 1932, and only 16 in 1939.

In 1930 the community, then located at Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse (Polish: ulica Cesarza Wilhelma, currently: ulica Wojska Polskiego) 108, was headed by rabbi Benni Fein and supported financially by the rentier Arnold Danziger and the merchants Moritz Hirschfeldt (Hirschfeld) and Josef Hirschberg. The same management still functioned in 1932.

The local Jewish citizens focused mainly on trade and transport. There were among them trade agents, restaurant owners, horse merchants, apothecaries, and even music teachers and land owners. A laundry service was run by Alpert and legal counsel was provided by dr. Blumberg.

In 1891, among the 337 students of the local secondary school were 17 Jews, as were 2 of the 15 students preparing for their final exams.

The Jews in Ełk were loyal citizens of the Kingdom of Prussia, and later the German Empire. During WWI, the following died in service of their German homeland: Kurt Scharlach (1889-1914), David Lewin (1892-1916), Moritz Schlochauer (1886-1917), and Max Simberg (1896-1918),

However, the bitter defeat in WWI and the fall of the empire, further aggravated by the global crisis, caused an increase in antisemitic sentiments, flaring up with considerable force even before the rise of the NSDAP to power. In 1927, during a gathering of the local fascists, a leaflet was spread around entitled "The Jewish Advantage" (German: Die jüdische Überlegenheit). In August of 1932, unknown perpetrators threw a hand grenade into the apartment of an apothecary, Leo Frankenstein, killing him. Another wave of persecution followed the NSDAP's victory in the elections on 5th March 1933, leading to the arrests of "many noteworthy merchants and 'academics'" in Ełk, among them the merchants Kaulbars and Frankenstein. The summer of that year saw the boycott of a store run by Moritz Hirschfeldt, who, being a Swedish citizen, was not afraid to begin an official and administrative conflict with the local activists of the NSDAP and the SA. The final straw came in the form of the  events of the Kristallnacht (09/10 November 1938), when the synagogue was burned down and Jewish stores were looted.

The atmosphere in town became unbearable for the local Jews. Those with more foresight decided to emigrate, first outside of Germany, and when travel abroad was no longer an option, mainly to Berlin. Some chose to seek refuge on other continents, such as Ibolika Slotowski (born 1901 in Budapest), a pianist who married Helmuth Slotowski and lived in Ełk. The Slotowski family managed to emigrate to Shanghai, but were both murdered there in 1940.

About 50 Jews born in Ełk County sought refuge in Berlin. Many Jewish citizens of Ełk or those born there were killed in German concentration and death camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibor, Bełżc, Chełmno nad Nerem, Sachsenhausen, Stutthof, Ravensbrück, Dachau, Bergen Belsen, Trawniki, Majdanek, as well as Raasik, Bernburg, Königsberg, Głusko, and the ghettos of Theresienstadt, Kaunas, Riga, Warsaw, Łódź, Bełżyce, and Minsk. Overall, the Holocaust claimed the lives of 80 people from Ełk.

Among the Holocaust survivors were members of the following families: Alexandrowitz, Berl, Brenner, Czollek, Esenstaedt, Freyer, Guttfeld, Hammmerschmidt, Herrmann, Jacoby, Lewinski, Littwack, Rosenthal, Slotowski.

Bibliography:

  • Die jüdischen Gefallenen des deutschen Heeres, der deutschen Marine und der deutschen Schutztruppen 1914–1918. Ein Gedenkbuch, Berlin 1932.
  • Einwohnerbuch der Stadt Lyck in Ostpr. Sowie der Gemeinde Prostken und der Ortschaften des Kreises Lyck, Lyck 1930.
  • Falk Z. W., Lyck, [w:] Encyclopedia Judaica, t. 13, red. F. Skolnik, Detroit 2007, s. 294.
  • Führer durch die jüdische Gemeindeverwaltung und Wohlfahrtspflege in Deutschland: 1932–1933, Berlin 1933, s. 26.
  • Kossert A., Zapomniane południe Prus Wschodnich, Warszawa 2004.
  • Kossert A., Zur Geschichte der jüdischen Gemeinde im Kreis Lyck, „Hagen-Lycker Brief” 2000, nr 58.
  • Kouts G., Remarks on the „Invention” of Foreign News in the Hebrew Press (English Abstracts of Hebrew Articles), „Kesher” 2007, nr 36.
  • Koziełło-Poklewski B., Narodowosocjalistyczna Niemiecka Partia Robotnicza w Prusach Wschodnich 1921–1933, Olsztyn 1995.
  • Lyck, [w:] The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, t. 2, red. S. Spector, New York 2001, s. 776.
  • Silberman, Eliezer Lipman, Jewish Encyclopedia [online] http://jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=708&letter=S&search=ha-maggid%20lyck [dostęp: 06.04.2014].
  • Wiśniewski T., E jak Ełk, „Słowo Żydowskie” 2006, nr 3/4.

 

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Footnotes
  • [1.1] Lyck, in: S. Spector (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, 2 (2001), 776; T. Wiśniewski, "E jak Ełk", in: Słowo Żydowskie 3/4 (2006), 19.